Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation, VI. From the 1832 Reform Act to World War One

In this post, a look at comparative growth of democracy in Europe along with Britain’s role in World War One and subsequent European diplomacy.

Britain made some progress towards extending voting rights beyond a very tiny minority in the Reform Act of 1832, which was also a law to make constituency distribution relate to the population of the time, particularly the expansion of the urban population, abolish constituencies of a few voters where the MP was in practice appointed by the local dominant landlord and even out a very inconsistent voting system, reducing the number of people who could vote in at least one case. The overall right to vote was extended from about 5 per cent to about 20 per cent of the population, which did mark a genuine shift of power from the aristocracy and put Britain in a good place in terms of comparative voting rights by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, there was working class disappointment expressed in the Chartist movement which mobilised mass support, but was ignored.

The next major change came in the 1867 Reform Act, which did not introduce universal male suffrage, but did extend voting rights to a significant part of the urban working class. Universal male suffrage at the age of twenty-one did not come until after World War One, alongside suffrage at thirty for women, followed a few years later by voting rights at twenty-one for all women as well as all men. Denmark and Switzerland introduced universal male suffrage with meaningful pluralistic elections in 1848. France reverted to the lost revolutionary republican idea of universal male suffrage, though the meaning of elections was highly constrained by the rise of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte to the presidency, which he transformed into the role of Emperor. Prussia, while reserving a powers to the monarchy and preserving the power of the aristocracy through a weighting of the electoral system to the highest tax payers, did introduce universal male suffrage in 1849.

The 1867 Reform Act in Britain still left it behind these countries, particularly as France became a pluralist democracy after 1870 and a unified Germany appeared in the same year (the events are linked by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870) with universal suffrage, but the same weighting towards the upper class within the Kingdom of Prussia, the largest and most powerful part of the new German Empire, which had a distinct and dominant status within the Empire. As we can see, discussion of the comparative growth of the suffrage and political pluralism soon gets into very complicated details, which also include questions of how much power elected bodies had in relation to hereditary monarchs, so that is the end of the examples.

Anyway, the general pattern is that though Britain was ahead of just about all of Europe outside Switzerland in giving power to elected institutions, there is nothing special or exemplary about the spread of voting rights in Britain. In the nineteenth century it was certainly republics, just Switzerland then France, which established the best situations, which certainly challenges any idea of a special virtue in the British combination of monarchy and parliament. The exemplary monarchical state was Denmark rather than Britain.

Moving onto the First World War, as has already been shown, British entry was not a re-entry into European politics after a complete absence after the Battle of Waterloo. Britain was constantly engaged in European affairs and would not have entered the Great War, if it had not been concerned enough with European politics to establish alliances and have a strong view about German armies invading France and neutral Belgium.

Who to blame for World War One and the question of whether Britain should have taken part are rather divisive questions across political distinctions, so it is difficult to talk about a unified sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative here, or indeed any political tendency, however defined, having a unified narrative. So it can at least be said that World War One does not add to any claim to the innate superiority of Britain and if Britain was right to intervene, that cannot make it more morally admirable than France and Belgium. The intervention right or wrong certainly reflected British views of its own interests in keeping northwestern Europe, the land mass facing it across the seas, out of the control of a hegemonic European power

It can at least be said that even for those who think on balance Britain was right to come to the full aid of France and Belgium, the continuation of the naval blockade of Germany, part the armistice which ended the war into 1919 was a horrifying policy of suffering imposed on an already defeated and impoverished German population, depriving Britain of any claim to rise morally above the other European powers.  In any case there is no denying that Britain was involved in European politics during the War and after in the Paris peace treaties, the revision of the Treaty of Sèvres, signed with the Ottoman Empire, in the Treaty of Lausanne signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1926.

Next post, World War II

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